While I’m a sucker for the Marvel movies, my personal favourite movie about superhumans is 2012’s Chronicle, a movie that appeals to the side of me that sees the crossover potential of the superhuman in fiction, and not keep it limited to the kind of material that’s been pounding the cinemas for decades now, and now Brightburn, a modestly made indie movie produced by Guardians of the Galaxy‘s James Gunn has cemented itself right by it.
I remain a dedicated and passionate fan of the kind of comics produced in the 60’s by Marvel Comics. I can reread those comics over and over, but it was the British revolution in he 1980s, spearheaded by Alan Moore, that first showed me the possibilities of mashing up the “superhero” genre with others. So far, that has actually only rarely happened in both comics and other forms of popular culture, and likely will never actually be the thing I think it could be. Both Chronicle and Brightburn have made terrific attempts to show the consequence of superpowers that very often are glossed over in the plots of the Marvel and DC Comics superhero universes, which are primarily concerned with generating as much income as possible while sticking to the traditional good guy v bad guy plot. The FX driven collateral damage that comes with these big battles has only been addressed once, in the aftermath of Avengers: Age of Ultron, the repercussions of which precipitated the movie Captain America: Civil War, but even there it just felt like a plot point, not an organic admission that superhumans are serious trouble for the rest of us, not just inconvenient.
I won’t discuss Chronicle in any detail here, only to say that if you’re anything like me and haven’t seen it, it’s a must-see. Brightburn is a natural spiritual companion to Chronicle in how it handles not just superpowers, but the effects of superpowers on the individual. In Chronicle, three lives are affected by the transformative, separational effect of acquiring superpowers, in Brightburn, it’s a 12 year old boy. What’s astounding to me is how the movie got made in the first place: it’s a blatantly unashamed retelling of the Superman origin story. Not only does it involve a childless couple finding a crashed alien ship containing a humanoid baby, the crash site also happens to be a farm in rural Kansas! I’d think there are some kind of “parody” type laws of the same kind that protect the porn versions of superhero movies that came into play here, because I can’t imagine Warner Brothers never once tried to intervene in the making of this picture – of course, that’s idle speculation on my part, but c’mon! So, the kid grows up and he’s all the couple (Elizabeth Banks and David Denman) could ever have wanted; quiet, sensitive, and loving, until he starts to come under a strange influence that reaches out to him psychically, turning his world upside down, and when his parents get an inkling of this, they have the same fear any adoptive parents would: the child they have loved as their own will one day discover the truth about himself and seek a greater meaning to his life than they can provide. In this section there’s an origin story of sorts as the kid, Brandon – played well by Jackson Dunn (who also plays the teenage Scott Lang in Avengers: Endgame, oddly enough) – discovers his nascent superpowers and begins experimenting with them, and slowly, the uneasy mixture of abilities beyond any other human being, and the twilight zone of encroaching puberty, allow Brandon to make his own choices, to the detriment of almost everyone around him. In this case, Brandon’s arc is similar to that of Chronicle’s Andrew Detmer (Dane DeHaan), fulfilling the old adage that with power comes corruption, as Brandon sets about righting the wrongs that his young mind perceive as having been done to him, similar in spirit to the final act of Carrie, now that I think about it. But where Carrie ends, Brandon’s superhuman spree of carnage is simply the beginning, and with his power comes a mean streak that’s highly reminiscent of the character Johnny Bates, in the seminal comic series Marvelman (renamed Miracleman – a saga unto itself). In what could easily be considered the first attempt to show the superhuman in the “real” world, Johnny Bates is the former sidekick, Kid Marvelman, to the titular hero, who, during his adult sidekick’s disappearance from the scene, grew up with his powers, developed them in secret, and then finally, unable to see past his hatred of us lesser beings, unleashed a tidal wave of brutality that ultimately decimated the people and city of London.
In fact, there are two scenes in which Brightburn, written by Gunn’s brother Brian and cousin Mark, that shows the direct influence of Marvelman, both lifted from the comic.
This movie didn’t light up the box office the way Marvel, and to a lesser extent, DC have done, and given its R rating and low budget it was never going to compete, but I found it to be satisfying, and a great counterpoint to the kind of superhuman movies the world is used to seeing. I’m also a horror movie fan, and I greatly appreciated an R-rated superhuman movie that doesn’t just earn its rating from the lead character being a sarcastic pottymouth. And while Logan’s violence was kind of what you’d expect from that character, it never felt authentic to me, just fanservice. Brightburn had violence that mattered, it had violence that came with consequences that went way past just the gory death of a bad guy, consequences for both Brandon and those around him, just like Chronicle.
In act 3, though, I feared it would all fall apart due to a simple lack of belief in the screenwriters, and their possible inability to actually follow through with the premise they had come up with, an unwillingness to plow forward to the movie’s natural conclusion, and Brandon’s ultimate fate – but I’m happy to say that wasn’t the case, and I came out the theater with an immense sense of satisfaction over how it ended. Perfect, given the material and genre.
As an aside, it came to me as I pondered this review, that Henry Cavill’s portrayal of Superman as a resentful, moody, humourless bore with what appears to me a strong streak of narcissism (look at how he appears to drink up the adulation of the crowds that surround him) seems very much as if he could be the grown-up version of Brandon, once he’d grown out of his pubescent phase. Looking at it that way imbues the movie version of Superman with more meaning to me than it actually deserves.
I greatly enjoyed this rare attempt to show the true potential of the superhuman in fiction, and wish that Marvel would make some braver creative decision that could push some of their characters in a more naturalistic, darker direction, but so far, only the Daredevil show on Netflix has tried. Highly recommended to fans of the genre.
© Andrew Hope, 2019
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